Puerto Rico’s reconstruction will be costly. Documenting residents’ property doesn’t have to be.

After Hurricane Maria in 2017, many Puerto Ricans were denied FEMA relief funding because they did not have legal title to their homes.
After Hurricane Maria in 2017, many Puerto Ricans were denied FEMA relief funding because they did not have legal title to their homes. Getty Images

Sixteen months ago, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, damaging 80 percent of the island’s homes. When homeowners approached FEMA for relief funding, they hit a wall: Without legal title to their land, they were ineligible for relief. In the end, 60 percent of FEMA claims were rejected, primarily because applicants could not prove their home ownership. While Puerto Rico does have a fully digitized registry, an estimated 55 percent of the island’s properties are informal.

The problem was so glaring that the government of Puerto Rico requested nearly a billion dollars to provide everyone on the island with ownership documents and addresses. That’s a big chunk of the island’s $20 billion in HUD relief funds.

Documenting property and providing people with addresses is critical and urgent. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans still lack proper housing, and we don’t know when the next Maria will hit. According to HUD, only about 20 percent of Puerto Ricans have a viable address. Given these figures, HUD offered a scary assessment: Puerto Rico’s address system is not 911 compliant. And as Puerto Rico emerges from an economic slump, everyone needs to share in the growth. Secure property rights can protect communities from exploitation, give them equity in the reconstruction and increase access to loans and financial markets.

But we don’t think solving these problems should cost a billion dollars. In fact, we believe that using innovative technologies and a flexible approach, every Puerto Rican can get a home document and an address for less than $50 million.

The two largest cost and time sinks associated with registering property are surveying the land and processing the application. Traditionally, a surveyor carrying expensive, high-accuracy equipment walks the perimeter of every property and certifies the results. Then, the would-be property owner presents the survey plan, along with a long application form and identification, and pays a licensed body to verify the package.

The problem with this approach is that it can cost thousands of dollars and take months to complete. Per the World Bank Doing Business Index, it takes 191 days on average to register property in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Ricans can’t wait that long — and they shouldn’t have to pay that much.

Luckily, FEMA opened the door to a more flexible approach when, faced with an overwhelming number of aid applicants who lacked property documents, it began accepting affidavits as proof of home ownership.

If the government of Puerto Rico continues to be open minded about the type of proof it will accept, property registration can move quickly and inexpensively. Best of all, the government can create jobs and stimulate the economy by allowing Puerto Ricans to participate in the process, while making good on its ambition to be an innovator and to ‘build back better’.

For example, instead of surveying every property, the government can rely on advances in artificial intelligence to create property maps. Recent research shows that computers can be trained to accurately identify land parcel boundaries using physical features like fences, or simply changes in use (for example a sudden shift in vegetation). The computer’s output still needs to be validated by communities — but it creates a baseline from which to work.

Next, the government can allow citizens to present property claims by entering their location and biographical information into a secure and shareable platform directly, or through trained intermediaries. One such platform — offered by the Cadasta Foundation — has been used by government agencies in India to quickly document property rights. Citizens can upload their ID and any other documents that tie them to their homes: essentially, a vastly improved version of FEMA’s affidavit.

Finally, there’s the issue of addressing. Traditional addressing can be expensive. Fortunately, the prevalence of smart phones means we don’t actually need a government-issued address to tell people where we are. What3Words has seized on this revolution by dividing the world into uniquely addressed three by three meter squares. Already the government of Mongolia has adopted What3Words as its official addressing system. Why not Puerto Rico?

Taking advantage of these technologies requires flexibility and an open mind. Understandably, the government may be reticent to use these new tools to register such critical t assets. In that case, it can adopt a “provisional title” approach, which has been used in Minnesota: Provisional titles are valid unless disputed, and mature into permanent titles if they remain undisputed for a predetermined period.

Puerto Rico has committed to rebuilding better — and more quickly. With a willingness to harness the potential of new technologies, the government can efficiently secure Puerto Ricans’ most important asset and free up funds for other critical uses.

Yuliya Panfil is the director of the Future of Property Rights Program at New America. Chris Mellon is a policy analyst in the Future of Property Rights Program at New America.